National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Children's letters to God become a musical


More than four decades ago, Stuart Hample, prompted by a small voice inside his head, asked just one question. That one question was soon followed by hundreds of questions asked by hundreds of small voices and would make Hample an international best-selling author.

“Maybe it was the hand of God. I don’t know,” said Hample, looking back on the start of what was to become an amazing journey. The questions -- and comments -- of small voices became Children’s Letters to God, with editions published in 1967, 1968 and 1991 and sales of about 1.5 million copies. Now, in a leap from page to stage, the letters have been transformed into an Off-Broadway musical with the same name at the Lamb’s Theatre in Times Square.

It all started in 1961 when Hample was an author talking to students at St. Augustine’s School in Larchmont, N.Y., about his The Silly Book, which had just been published. As he was leaving, he impulsively asked one of the nuns his life-changing question: “What do you think would happen if I asked them to write to God?” She said she didn’t know but would think about it.

A couple weeks later she sent him his first set of letters and he sensed he was on to something. He went to the town’s synagogue to solicit more, then reached out to other schools, houses of worship and “grandchildren and children of friends.”

“I wanted them to confront God as only a child can do,” he said. “They’re very open and truthful.”

His publisher, Simon & Schuster, was dubious, refusing to give an advance, just royalties. (He is still receiving royalties from Japan and Germany from that first 1967 edition.) Now, at “78 and a half,” Hample, a father of four, seems enthusiastic about this latest incarnation of Letters.

“I wanted to use the essence of the book, but we had to open it up,” he said. “We didn’t want to have children standing around reciting letters.”

The show is the product of several earlier productions in the last couple of years. Five characters were created and eight songs sprung from the letters. Hample has written most of the dialogue. David Evans composed the music and Douglas Cohen the lyrics. Story lines include divorce, sibling rivalry, school traumas and the death of a turtle, with letters introducing the scenes. The mortality issue allowed Hample to use the words from his favorite letter -- “Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?”

“That went right to my sense of mortality and life,” Hample says. “We would never say that. We would be afraid to, but we would think it.”

While the letter writers freely challenge God throughout, in the final song, “I Know,” they joyfully sing of their faith in the caring presence of God: “I’ve heard people say/ the world can be explained/ by atoms colliding./ And then some insist/ if God really does exist/ well he must be hiding./I say ‘Let the doubters doubt’/ cuz God I’ve found you out.

“Every time I count the stars in the sky/ I know./ Or watch a single cloud sail lazily by/ I know./ Who else could make the Grand Canyon oh so grand/ or fill a seashore up with tiny grains of sand/ or make the feeling that I get from holding your hand?/ I know/ I know …

“I have so many questions to ask of you./ You answer everyone in everything you do./ In the sky/ in the sea/ in the rain, in the snow/ in the light/ Yes I know./ In my heart/ Now I know.”

That “I Know” spirit seems to have infected everyone involved. Three weeks before its opening, the atmosphere backstage was upbeat and supportive. “It’s very Zen,” Hample says. “It’s the hand of somebody watching us.”

It’s also the product of the community of gifts that come together to make live theater, in this case director Stafford Arima and choreographer Patti Wilcox combining their talents with Hample’s.

Which is not to overlook the five young singer/actors who will bring all that work to life seven times a week -- Gerard Canonico, 14; Jimmy Dieffenbach, 12; Libbie Jacobson, 11; Sara Kapner, 14; and Andrew Zutty, 12. They see their show, which has been in development for more than nine years, as coming at a particularly important time. “In a time of war, it shows how children can wonder how bad things can happen and good things can happen,” Libbie says. “It’s an uplifting show in these dark times. It starts with children’s naive questions, then probes deeper.”

Their director agreed.

“It’s a wonderful testament to the strength and purity of children,” Arima said. “When something is so pure, it has the potential to heal, as this does and as theater does. It’s been an extraordinary journey. As we get closer I realize we are deeply immersed in a world of questions that are universal. We vicariously relive our lives through the questions these children ask because we as adults are asking them at this very moment.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book is Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.

Related Web site
“Children’s Letters to God”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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